In Dudley Square, everybody wants something that just might be impossible.
They long for enough development to fill in the empty lots that have been fallow for decades. But not enough to put the neighborhood beyond the reach of those who live and work here.
It’s a delicate balance, and one that has proved elusive in other parts of the city, like the South End. The specter of that tony neighborhood across Mass. Ave. haunts a lot of conversations in Dudley these days.
“Is it going to be the South End, or is Roxbury still going to have its own authenticity?” asked Biplaw Rai, an owner of the new Dudley Cafe.
The cafe, and the gorgeous new Bolling building in which it sits, have added a new urgency to discussions about Roxbury’s future.
The cafe was jammed at lunchtime on a recent Thursday, with a diverse crowd gathered at tables and in armchairs, sipping espresso and enjoying rice bowls. Workers from the Boston Schools headquarters upstairs account for much of the cafe’s daytime business.
It is the kind of cafe — welcoming, with great food and atmosphere — every community deserves. It joins the terrific Haley House Bakery and Cafe just down Washington Street. The Haley people have also opened Dudley Dough, which serves inventive pizza, on the other side of the Bolling building. A Tasty Burger is opening next door.
But Dudley Cafe is also the kind of place one might see in the South End. And so, while many in the neighborhood celebrate it, they also view it with trepidation. Every day, Rai reassures residents he worries about gentrification, too. The cafe tries to keep prices low, and the community invested. Owners, who live in Roxbury, hold open mikes and trivia nights with community organizations to bring in more locals. They employ students from Madison Park High and use nearby suppliers.
“We hope families stay in the community, and that they can enjoy the square and visit local businesses,” Rai said.
Those families are crucial to Dudley’s future. Most people here agree that a mix of incomes makes for a healthier community. They worry that working families — those who earn too much for public housing and too little for market rate homes — will be left out as those storefronts and lots fill in.
“I can’t afford it here now,” said Luther Pinckney, team leader at Dudley Dough. Pinckney, 43, grew up in the area. For him, the ornate facade of the Ferdinand building, which stood vacant for decades before being transformed into the acclaimed Bolling building, isn’t beautiful. Instead, it represents years of neglect. The empty lots just steps away speak to that same neglect, and something worse. “It’s obvious people are holding onto that property waiting to cash in,” he said.
To the casual observer, the barren lots and shuttered storefronts might make that seem unlikely. But the most profound change in Roxbury isn’t just in the new buildings, but a little further out, in neighborhoods like Highland Park. Sale prices in Roxbury rose by 14 percent over the last two years, said Sheila Dillon, the mayor’s chief of neighborhood development.
Longtime environmental justice group Alternatives for Community and Environment is looking for a new home as rents in Dudley move beyond the scrappy nonprofit’s reach.
“A lot of building owners are waiting for the big boom where they can charge downtown prices,” said executive director Kalila Barnett, who grew up in the area and also cannot afford to move back here. The ACE offices have long been a center for community organizing on transportation and tenants’ rights in Roxbury.
If there’s no place in today’s Dudley for ACE, or for residents like Barnett and Pinckney, we’re already doing it wrong.
But as long as those vacant lots exist, it’s not too late to get it right.